Blogs

Gentle reader, do you harbor a fond regard for Jane Austen?  Is there a quiet little corner of your mind that remembers your literature classes fondly? Can you be found watching just about every costume drama that hits the movie theater or television screen? (The occasional water bottle forgotten on set just gives me a good chuckle!).  If so, you might enjoy the following series.

Shades of Milk and Honey book jacket
I just caught up on Glamourist Histories series by Mary Robinette Kowal.  I had ignored the books when they first came out and ended up reading the third book first.  I liked it so well I dropped my other reading to go back and catch up on the series.

The first book, Shades of Milk and Honey, introduces Jane, the plain elder daughter of a respectable gentleman. In this world the real reason ladies of good families swoon so very often isn't the too tight corseting, but the strain of casting glamour. Part of a respectable girl's education includes not just the arts a young lady would have learned in the real world but also learning to cast glamour, entertaining her would be suitors and providing a decorative grace, with her illusions, to her family's home.

Jane has a lovely younger sister and, being of a certain age, has become resigned to her fate as a spinster sister.  As Jane has always been plain, she has thrown herself into her lessons and is a talented illusionist after years of study and practice with glamour.  A nearby family hires a gifted artist, mysterious Mr. Vincent, to decorate their manor home with glamours.  The expected misunderstandings occur!

I'm really looking forward to the final book, Of Noble Family, late next spring and will definitely read any other series this author writes. I heard her reading from an upcoming new series this summer and it was intriguing!

birthday cake
Can I interest you in a piece of cake? September is a month of celebrating. So many birthdays! Conway Twitty. Sophia Loren. Upton Sinclair. Me! I'm sure that many of you either have birthdays during the month of September, or know many folks who do. I attribute this to the Christmas and New Year's holidays falling approximately nine months before this most celebratory month ;-). But whatever the reason, September offers opportunites to party at every turn.

However you enjoy celebrating your big day, or the big days of your loved ones, I wish you the best. I'm hoping for a quiet day spent out of town, surrounded by people I love, followed by cake, chocolate please, maybe from the library's new acquisition, Betty Crocker Birthdays. The day of one's birth is a time for rejoicing, no matter what that entails.

Before I go, I would like to remind you of another very important September birthday. Our very own Multnomah County Library turns 150 years young this month!

birthday logo
 What an honor to be part of such a special birthday! I, and everyone who has a hand in making our libraries the magical places that they are, would like to invite you to attend our 150th jubilee, Saturday, September 27. Take a look at this page and join us for a bash of unrivaled revelry, with fun for all ages. After all, you, dear reader, are part of what makes the Multnomah County library extraordinary! Happy Birthday! 

Yep, swuft--if you take that to mean anything that is cool or wonderful or fascinating. Swuft is a catch-all phrase in Seattle author Ivan Doig’s Bartender’s Tale, and it really does describe one of my favorite authors. Doig’s characters are flawed but big-hearted; miners, ranchers, teachers, raconteurs trying to get by in tough times. His settings are always in Montana, perhaps in the  early 1900s or the 1960s, and he weaves in a historical event or two into his stories. Doig’s characters' vocabularies are full of “Montanisms” derived from real research. (He’s even involved with a national group studying regionalisms.)  ‘Swuft’, by the way, is unusual in that Doig has said his “fingers” made it up. Doig’s own writing style is old-fashioned and full of “fine turns of phrase.” Finally, what I love most about Doig is that despite of some horrendous happenings, his books end on a hopeful note.

If you haven’t read Doig, try starting with the Whistling Season, to see how he intersects the lives of an Eastern Montanan widower, a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, and a housekeeper hired on the merits of her ad in the paper. (The ad: “Can’t cook, but doesn’t bite.) If you like that one, try the related novels, Work Song and Sweet Thunder. Another place to start is This House of Sky, Doig’s autobiography of his early years in Montana. If you like Doig’s masterful mix of characters, language, setting and hopefulness, try some of the titles on my list, (Mostly) Western Places, (Mostly) People You’d Like to Know. Those books are all pretty swuft. 

 

Noble Intentions bookjacket
Gillian is a British American redhead who is extremely clumsy and forthright. You know where you stand with her! Or that you really shouldn’t stand next to her because you might end up with paint on your ballgown. Whereas Noble, yes his name is Noble, has alas so much emotional baggage as a widow and possible murderer. You may wonder can they find love?  Can they be in the same room without someone getting hurt? Read Noble Intentions to find out.

This title is part of the genre Regency romance - novels set during the period of the British Regency early in the 19th century.They are compelling stories that push boundaries. I love the ones that comment on gender inequality and try to right wrongs.

And the wrongs can come packaged in characters who are trying to overcome serious disorders like stuttering or dyslexia. All these details add a flavor which is at odds with the perfect grace that is expected of the aristocrats in these novels.

Witty dialog is a must and most of these racy romances make me laugh out loud.The sexy physical romance between characters seems inevitable, like rain or sunshine. It’s a question of when the sexual activity occurs that creates tension and makes the verbal banter all the more humorous.

It seems that all is not perfect in the Regency world, and that makes for good reading!

Maps to check out, in the Literature & History Room, Central Library, 3rd floor.
The library, I’m sure you know, is a great place to borrow a book.  Did you know you can also borrow a map?

A fresh array of maps have recently arrived at Central Library, all available for check out.  This lovely shelf of circulating maps (pictured at right) is in the Literature & History room on Central’s third floor -- the same room that houses travel books, hiking guides, atlases, and other geography-related gems.

What’s in the map collection?

Most of the library’s check-out-able maps are of places in Portland, Multnomah County and Oregon, or of places in Washington and California.   And there are lots of different kinds.  For example, you can find:

  • wilderness, park and forest maps

  • street maps of cities and towns

  • maps showing lighthouses

  • regional maps showing areas like the California coast or the Olympic Peninsula

  • bicycling maps

  • and many other kinds of maps!

Would you like a recommendation for a great map?  Take a look at our brand-new list of Librarians' favorite maps -- or ask a librarian for a more personalized recommendation.

If you can’t or don’t want to come to Central Library to get your map fix, you can use the library catalog to place holds on the maps you want -- and then you can pick them up at your neighborhood library.

Finding maps in the library catalog

Here are some tips for different ways to search for maps in the library’s collection:

When you’re looking for a map of a particular place, start with a search for the name of the place -- let’s use Los Angeles as an example. This search gives you lots of library materials about LA; to get to the maps, go to the Format section on the left side of the screen, click Other, and then click the checkbox next to Maps

Now you have a much shorter list showing only maps and books containing lots of maps.  To find maps you can check out,  go back to the Format section on the left, click on Titles I can…, and then click the checkbox next to Borrow and take home.  Now you should see a nice tidy list of maps (of Los Angeles, in this case) that you can borrow with your library card.

 

If you’d like to see a list of the library’s newest maps, go to the Advanced search screen, look for the Format section down at the bottom, and click the checkbox next to Maps.  Now click on the orange Search button.  This gets you a super-duper crazy long list of all the maps and map-filled things in the library’s collection.  

You can see newest maps by going to the Sort by dropdown at the top of the screen, and choosing the Date acquired option.  Now you’ll see the list re-arranged with the newest maps at the top.  Again, if you'd like to limit your search to maps you can check out immediately, click the checkbox next to Borrow and take home, over in the Titles I can... section on the left side of the screen.

 

If you know the name of the map you need, you can search for it by title just as you would a book or other item.  Here’s an example: one of my favorite maps shows lighthouses in Oregon, Washington and Alaska -- it’s called Northwest Lighthouses.  A search for these words gets a list of results with the map right on top.

 

 

 

 

 


Remember, knowledgeable and friendly librarians are always standing by to help you with your map and research needs!  Ask us your map-related questions (or really, any questions) by email or phone, or talk to the librarian on duty the next time you’re at the library in person.   


 

See something say something
Portland’s mass transit agency, TriMet, reminds us if we see something, say something; the message is plastered all over its MAX cars and buses, but I saw something on the MAX the other day and said nothing.

Along with about a dozen other people seated in the front area of a MAX car (the part that you climb the stairs to get to) at about 8:15 on a weeknight, I witnessed an incident of racial profiling and didn’t call out the perpetrator. As is often the case in situations where you want to say the right thing perfectly, it was only after the fact that I could figure out what to say and how to say it.

Here’s what happened: A few stops after I got on the MAX headed east, three young African Americans boarded the train. Everyone else in our section of the car was white (and possibly older, but I can’t precisely recall). They were conversing in what I’d call a “teenaged” way – laughing, a little loud, seemingly unaware of others in the car. Someone in the area had music going loud enough so that it leaked out of the earbuds. (Let me parenthetically state that hearing this “half-music” possibly annoys me more than loud phone conversations on public transit, and I don’t recall being bothered by the sound.) While stopped at the Rose Quarter station, a uniformed woman (TriMet, but not law enforcement) boarded our car, walked up the stairs and spoke directly to the Black youths that there had been a complaint about their music.

When they stated that they hadn’t been playing any music, this person glanced around to the rest of us and sort of generally asked whoever was playing their music too loudly to turn it down. She stepped out of the car, walked around its front to (I assume) speak with the driver because she returned to the car and said – again to the Black youths – yes, it was a complaint about your music and it’s time to turn it down.

Here is, of course, the point that I should have spoken up about what I just saw. I know I don’t want to escalate the situation, so I need to craft my words carefully. And that is so hard to do in the moment.

I have the (awkwardly formal) conversation clear in my head now:

Me: Excuse me, but I would like to point out that I have just witnessed an incident of racial profiling in this MAX car. If you’ve received a complaint about loud music, you must ask each of us if we have been playing music and that we must turn it down.

She: Oh, yes, you’re absolutely right, I shouldn’t have assumed it was the African Americans on this train who were listening to loud music. First, let me apologize to these young people right now and explain to the rest of you here in this section that you cannot play your music so loudly that the driver is able to hear it.

Me: Thank you.

I did send an equally careful comment via the TriMet website but it’s really too late. Cynically, I assume they will send that employee to some diversity training, she’ll be resentful and won’t hear what the trainers have to share, and it will happen all over again.

I hope it doesn’t happen all over again for me. Next time, I hope I’ll have the courage to speak up.

Can you share a situation where you witnessed something wrong and did or didn’t speak up?

(And because I’m a librarian, I found some books on the subject.)

Book jacket: The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go
Out of the blue Tristan, a young and aimless American, receives notice from a London solicitor's office that he could stand to inherit an unspeakably large fortune that has been left unclaimed for nearly eighty years. He has only to provide evidence that he is the great grandson of one Imogen Soames-Andersson; a name he's never heard before. Oh and Tristan has only two months before the trust expires and the fortune is turned over to charity.

So begins The Steady Running of the Hour, a debut novel by Justin Go that's part historical romance, part pulse-racing scavenger hunt. This is a book for fans of multi-layered historical fiction, whirlwind European travel, genealogy, and mysteries that reveal clues that only lead to more mysteries, until uncovering the story becomes the only thing that matters.

Just be warned that when you are forced to put Go's book down momentarily: to wash dishes, put on pants, or otherwise keep up appearances as a functioning member of society, you too may find yourself walking around in a daydreamy fog, contemplating clues written on brittle letters left behind in isolated Swedish barns.

Agatha Christie was queen of my reading list when I was in junior high school, and when I ran out of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot books, I started consuming other English mysteries of their ilk. It turns out that what I mostly liked was a sub-genre of mystery called "the cozy", and I read truly frightening numbers of them during the summers from the age of 12 until about 18.

Barry Trott notes in Read On…Crime Fiction that "In a cozy mystery, most of the deaths occur offstage, and even when death makes a visit, there is a distinct lack of violence. The same applies to sex…Although the action may be mellow, the characters and the humor in cozies keep the reader entertained and coming back for more." Favorite authors of mine included Dorothy Sayers, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Catherine Aird, Elizabeth Daly, Margery Allingham and Robert Barnard. In later years, I discovered and enjoyed M.C. Beaton's Hamish MacBeth books and Rhys Bowen's Constable Evans series.

Mostly these days I prefer British police procedural series with complex characters and relationships that change and develop from book to book; however, the brooding inspectors and their personal problems have been a bit too heavy for me this year, so I was pleased to read a new book in the cozy arena titled Death of a Cozy Writer by G.M. Malliet. It was perfect - it had all of the elements that I love in a good cozy: dysfunctional English families, lots of suspects, murders that were not too graphically described and, best of all, a country house setting!

When the eldest son and heir apparent to the Beauclerk-Fisk family fortune is bumped off in the wine cellar and it looks like the murder is an inside job, family secrets begin rising to the surface and nobody is exempt from suspicion. Will the rest of the family get out alive?

Check out the Cozy Mystery List for more ideas and info about this subgenre.  And here's a source for long lists of authors and cozies by theme, courtesy of cozymystery.com.

I am the product of a English teacher/homemaker mom and a history professor dad.  Dig deeper into the family dirt and you’ll find coal miners, farmers and engineers.  My paternal grandmother even served as a Chief Yeoman in World War I. I have relatives on both sides of the family who have done the genealogy, so I know my familial history back a number of generations.  My roots are in England, the Netherlands and the Midwest. It’s no wonder I’m an Anglophile and a Green Bay Packers fan!

The People in the Photo book jacket
The women in The People in the Photo and The Sea House are not so fortunate.  They can’t even get a grip on who their mothers were, let alone their grandmothers. In The People in the Photo by Helene Gestern, Parisian archivist Helene Hivert doesn’t know much about her mother except that she died when she was four.  For years she didn’t even know how her mother died because nobody would talk about it, and her father would get very upset when Helene asked.  Years later as an adult, Helene finds a newspaper clipping with a photo of her mother and two men on a tennis court and decides to find out who those men were. What follows is a series of letters between Helene and Stephane, the son of one of those men.  Peeling the layers of family mysteries was fascinating and if I hadn’t had to go to work, I would have finished this novel in a day.
The Sea House book jacket

In The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford, Ruth similarly knows little about her mother.  Her mother also died when she was young, but not before she had told Ruth stories about her grandmother’s grandmother: She “was a seal woman.  She cast off her seal skin, fell in love with a fisherman, had his child and then she left them.  Sooner or later, seal people always go back to the sea.”  Well Ruth goes back, not to the sea, but to an island in the Outer Hebrides where her mother said she had grown up and buys a house, and soon she is deep in investigating secrets involving a dead child who just might have some Selkie (seal people) blood in her.  I loved the way the book shuttled back and forth between the 1860s occupant’s story and that of Ruth, the present day owner. I definitely want to get to the Hebrides one day, even though, as far as I know, I have no Selkies in my ancestral pool.

If you love books about family secrets, you’ll enjoy these two titles.

I've read a lot of novels set in Europe during World War II. Hasn't every reader of historical fiction? It's the just war—the only war in recent memory where there was a clear line between the good and the bad guys, which makes it very useful for literature. But of course, it's not really that simple. Recently I read Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, and it gave a thoughtful and moving look at what it would have been like to be on the wrong side of that war.

We meet Werner as a young orphan in a bleak mining town in Germany. Germany is already turning into a war machine, one fueled by the coal mines that Werner and all the boys in the orphanage are going to be sent down into when they get old enough. But Werner is a bit of a prodigy. He has the ability to fix radios everyone else has given up on, and when his talent catches the right person's attention, he's given a chance to escape from the mines. He takes this chance, getting a place at a national school that, with the use of shocking brutality, is molding the future leadership of the Third Reich. 

Marie-Laure is a blind girl living in Paris with her father. She's a great character, extraordinarily brave, and indeed, she needs to be brave as she flees Paris, loses her father, and gets involved with the French Resistance.

The narrative alternates between these two characters and they do not meet until very close to the end of both the war and the book. The writing is lovely, and the book is full of interesting and well-developed characters.

Sometimes I look around at the books in the library where I work and despair-- the whole world of literature is darkness, except for those books I've inhabited for a while and made my own, and there are so many I'll never get to. If you enjoy fiction set during World War II, this list contains other good books that you may not want to leave in the dark.

 

 

Margaret Mead
I have vivid memories of rummaging about in my mom’s stockings drawer when I was a kid and finding two books - one was on boys' development (my brother was in his difficult puberty years) and the other was Margaret Mead’s, Coming of Age in Samoa. I didn’t quite understand why my mom had hidden this book away and it didn’t look enticing enough to read so I left it and spent a lot of time reading about how boys develop. I wish now I had read a bit of Coming of Age in Samoa to see just how ahead of its time it was.

Euphoria bookjacket

My memory of finding Margaret Mead’s groundbreaking book came back to me as I was reading Lily King’s latest book, Euphoria. Euphoria takes as its starting point an event in the life of Margaret Mead and spins off into a tale that takes you into the world of anthropologists exploring the world of New Guinea in the 1930's. It’s the story of three anthropologists: Nell Stone, modeled after Margaret Mead, her husband Fen, and Andrew Bankson, a troubled, suicidal man who is saved by his relationship with Nell and Fen. It’s a tale of passion, imagination, memory. It makes you think about how objective any of us can be when viewing the world. And you'll be blown away by the amazing writing: 

Do you have a favorite part of all this? she asked. . .

It’s that moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on this place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It’s a delusion--you’ve only been there eight weeks--and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.

Bloody hell. I laughed.

You don’t get that?

Christ, no. A good day for me is when no little boy steals my underwear, pokes it through with sticks, and brings it back stuffed with rats.

If you’re looking for a book filled with wonderful imagery, a fascinating story, an exotic setting, and interesting characters, then Euphoria’s a book for you.

cover image of rules of civility
If you are enamoured at all with the Lost Generation era, Rules of Civility by Amor Towles may just be the next read that recreates that initial flutter. It's not technically Lost Generation, but the feel is much the same. ​The setting is the tail end of the roaring 30s in New York City. It is the leftover last hurrah of the long party, which was the 20s, with the Great Depression still lingering. It is a sophisticated novel, which captures the romance of the time while never letting the reader forget the gritty underbelly. Mr. Towles manages to write convincingly from a woman’s perspective and has created quite the character in Katey Kontent. Katey is a witty and independent young woman making her way in the world when she meets Tinker Grey, who may as well be Jay Gatsby himself with his rags to riches story and suave debonair manner. This novel has many elements to enjoy.  It has interesting, admirable, flawed, yet relatable characters, a plot that keeps you turning pages because of the subtle twists in the story, a setting in a major metropolis at a memorable time in history, and language that is simply exquisite with its rich and unique turns of phrases like “slurring is the cursive of speech." There is unrequited love, loss and gain of fortune, clever quips, and a cinematic atmosphere. So relax. Sit back with a drink and loll the passages over with your tongue. This is one unpredictable journey.  

Today I made a discovery. I still enjoy reading old fashioned stories about the Old West.

Some people call it pulp fiction, but for me it brings with it memories of spending hot summer afternoons lying on the old metal bunk in my grandfather’s office in Eastern Washington, reading Zane Grey’s Western magazine  and paperback westerns by Louis Lamour.  

Cover for The Tonto Woman by Elmore Leonard

Well I’m more sophisticated now. I read Swedish mysteries by Henning Mankell and Pulitzer Prize winners like The Goldfinch and Olive Kitterige.  But something inside me still loves those stories about strong silent cowboys and rugged, bold spirited  American Indians who feel much but say little; times when everything seemed black and white simple.  So when I saw The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, my hand was already picking it up before I knew what I was doing. From the first story  "Trail of the Apache"  which takes place in Arizona in the 1880s, I was hooked again.  The tough realism of his later suspense and crime novels is there as well as a dispassionate awareness that makes the characters- native or white  stand out from their stereotypes.

If you are looking for a good read for a long afternoon, give it a try.

It’s been a great year for questing, battles with the stakes starting at the survival of humanity, and the wonders of imagined cultures and technologies.

Watching Guardians of the Galaxy was huge fun, and Ann Leckie’s debut Ancillary Justice fell into my hands shortly after it won the Hugo. And barely left my hands for a moment until it was done.

It’s wonderfully original and highly compelling. I generally read only the first book in a series (as my mission is to help you all find great reads, I choose reading widely over reading deeply) — however, I’m so attached to the main character that I will be dropping everything when Ancillary Sword is published next month.

Breq was once a spaceship, and a soldier, and a thousand other parts of a vast artificial intelligence that existed for hundreds of years. Now Breq is just one heartbroken cyborg, bent on vengeance against the ruler of the culture that created him. If you are familiar with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-inspired song "Marvin, I Love You" (You Tube), then you have an inkling of how I feel about Breq. 

Looking for more good space opera? Check out my list.

What is home? Where is it? Who gets to decide? Would I feel at home without the constant chatter, sticky surfaces and bruises from over-enthusiastic light saber battles? Would you feel at home without your bare feet harvesting stray Cheerios and tiny plastic jewels? Can home be home without your consent? Is home a place? A thing? A feeling? A person? A mysterious amalgamation of all these and more? Under what conditions does home become something other than home--a holy land or a prison cell? Two books I have read recently ask compelling questions about the places we call home.
 
Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant book jacket
Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? 
is Roz Chast's memoir of her end-of-life experiences with her elderly parents. Devastating, poignant, and laugh-out-loud funny, she must navigate senility, hospitalizations, assisted living and all the responsibilities an only child of elderly parents must shoulder. What is it like to move parents from a home of 50+ years to a place you--and they--know they will never leave? What does a childhood home mean once you've left it behind? What does it mean when you return? And what happens when you must sort through that home, object by object? Is it possible to concentrate the idea of home into other containers when it finally ceases to exist? This is a must-read book for anyone facing parental transition and a graphic novel for those who do not feel at home with graphic novels--you know who you are. (Think of it as a book-length New Yorker cartoon, and you'll be okay.)
 
California by Edan Lepucki is an apocalyptic fantasy posing interesting questions of home within a mesmerizing dystopian setting.
California book jacket
Cal and Frida have left the world they've known in a crumbling Los Angeles to make a new life together in the wilderness. They disrupt their tenuous homesteading to seek out a nearby community when Frida discovers she is pregnant. Their marriage is tested by what they find. Is trust directly proportional to home? Or is trust a constant in the equation? While I found myself desiring more complex characterization, the setting continues to haunt. 
 
Is home the beginning? Or the end?

Technically Street Literature began with classics like David Copperfield and Maggie: a Girl of the Streets and the genre continued through other canonical

Maggie, a Girl of the Streets book jacket
writers like Jack London, Henry Miller, Ralph Ellison, and William Burroughs. However, the Renaissance of Street Literature is the most obscured part of its history.

During the Mid-20th century, the Pulp Fiction racks were a place to by-pass the censors and tell stories outside of regressive cultural mores.  Here, Street Literature thrived along with Queer fiction and other genres that were deemed obscene and low-brow.  Among the languishing writers of Pulp, was a man named Robert Beck; better known as Iceberg Slim.

Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp recounts his life in detail (so I will not here). Instead, I want to highlight Slim’s most surprising and underrated work Mama Black Widow, which recounts a poor sharecropping family’s move to Chicago and descent into the madness of the streets.

Addiction, violence, prostitutes, pimps, pool hustlers, dope peddlers, crooked preachers and cops, numbers, extortion, and manipulation spin around the black widow.  Drag Queen Otis (aka Sally/Tilly) relays her story with vivid detail and haunting emotion as she tries to break free from her mama’s sinister web and survive the violence waiting beyond. Tragic, graphic, and years ahead of its time, Mama Black Widow is not for the faint of heart.

heinz field
I bleed black and gold. If you don't know what I am talking about, then you are not from western Pennsylvania. We natives learn at an early age that fall Sundays are reserved for Steelers football, and not much else. I have lived in many other places, but nowhere else have I encountered the football fandom that exists in and around my hometown. Since moving to Portland, I have discovered other expats, and we pine for the hometown atmosphere on Sundays, sometimes at a local watering hole, sometimes at  home. Even though these days I sometimes catch myself rooting for Seattle (gasp!), the Steelers will always be my number one team.

The league has been having some serious troubles lately, and they need to be addressed. And I have found my enthusiasm waning. But this column is about my love of the game, the pure sport of football. Some of my favortie football-themed titles are on the booklist below. If football gets your black and gold (or navy and green) blood flowing, give some of them a try, and celebrate all things pigskin.  And if you aren't a fan of the best sport on earth, I encourage you to try one or two titles. You might just find yourself becoming a fan. Football's back!

Street photography according to Wikipedia is “photography that features the human condition within public places.” I realized I love street photography with the discovery of photographer Vivian Maier’s work. She took a lot of photos of children that were very tender. Maier also took many thought-provoking photos of the poor. She seemed to be looking to capture moments of comfort, like holding hands or cuddling together on the train.

There are a few websites devoted to this style of photography. There’s the Sunday Styles section column On The Street in the New York Times featuring Bill Cunningham's street photography. I’ve been a fan this column for years. There is also a series of videos derived from Bill’s photography. Sometimes the Willamette Week covers local fashion that intersects with street photography.

This type of photography is sprinkled throughout images of our popular culture. And of course our library has many books on the topic. A great photographer takes great photos. Great photos make me pause and wonder what happened before and what happened after that moment in time was captured on film. What about you? Do you wonder?

Leonid Pasternak, from Wikipedia
Do you need an MFA? You’re a writer. You write stories. You have a novel brewing. You’ve published some poems in small magazines. Or you’ve sold an essay. Maybe you’ve self-published a chapbook, zine, pamphlet, or little book. Or an e-book! Maybe you write and write, and would like to do these things.
 
Artists, including writers, might choose to pursue an Master of Fine Arts (MFA!) degree in order to become a professional in their field. It usually takes two or three years, and in many cases involves a substantial amount of money, which often means major student loans. An MFA in creative writing usually centers around a writer’s workshop, where students receive feedback on their work, and provide feedback on the work of their colleagues, under the guidance of a professor who is a published author. MFA students have mentorship, community, an ear to the publishing world, and perhaps most importantly, dedicated time and space to write. Funding and an opportunity to gain teaching experience by working as a teaching assistant are also sometimes part of the deal, but not always. 
 
Do you need an MFA to be a writer? Well, you already are one, right? Debate rages on (well, perhaps rages isn’t the most accurate term - simmers? drags?) about whether it’s worthwhile for aspiring writers to pursue an MFA. Plenty of writers don’t bother.  
 
Novelist Chad Harbach wrote an essay examining the social and literary consequences of a writing world (fiction, in particular), in which writers inhabit one of two systems: the world of MFA programs or the world of NYC publishing. This is published along with essays by contributors examining features of life from both sides in MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction.
 
So, is an MFA right for you? If you think so, some guides to programs might be useful: the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) guide to programs, or the MFA Programs Database from Poets & Writers Magazine. In book form, there's also The Creative Writing MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Graduate Students.
 
Perhaps an MFA program isn’t in the cards for you. Perhaps you might be be a better writer going under your own steam. Can’t you have mentorship, community and connections without the hefty price tag? Can’t you create your own reading lists and writing assignments, your own deadlines? Meet writer friends and share ideas and constructive criticism on your work? I’ll bet you can do these things. After all, you have the whole library at your fingertips!*
 
Here’s a booklist for you: DIY Creative Writing MFA
 
You might try working through an online Creative Writing course: there are quite a few free online courses offered by MIT OpenCourseWare! These cover different topics and genres, with courses about reading and writing poetry, reading and writing stories, writing the personal essay, genre writing, writing about race and border crossings… You can find these and other free (and for-fee) online courses on the Springboard course finder. If you'd like some help finding a syllabus or other course materials that are a good fit for you and the work you'd like to do, please feel free to get in touch with us
 
Especially if you want to do it yourself, local resources for writers are essential - they include classes, events, and writing groups. Here’s our post about some of them in the Portland area.  Also see our booklist of creative writing prompts and guides for ideas for creating your own assignments!
 
Let's not forget that the whole point of an MFA program in Creative Writing is to do a huge amount of work in a focused, directed sort of way. MFA students read like crazy, from the masters to the innovators. They write like crazy, all the time, head down and pen moving (or, you know, keyboard clicking). They read one anothers' work and think intensely about how and why a great piece of writing works. They dig deep into the mysteries and ambiguities and theories of language and literature. Get to work! 
 
*Sorry, shameless plug for library services. But seriously: everything you need to read is here, and plenty of resources for guidance about craft. We can help you borrow obscure poetry books via Interlibrary Loan, if necessary. We can connect you with suggestions for your reading list. We can even provide space for writing. If only we could help with the problem of time for writing.

There’s nothing like a great music biography. Tales of sex, drugs, unimaginable circumstances, and music are a great combination. One of my favorite genres, I've read many of them, most recently Andy Taylor’s Wild Boy.  It's always a thrill to witness the rock star lives we were never meant to see, or at least remember if we were there. Here's a couple to start with:

hammer of the gods cover

 

Much has been written about Led Zeppelin. One of the juciest, Hammer of the Gods, is a great intro to the world of the rock biography. Private jets, groupies and thirty minute drum solos were only the beginning. Their unprecedented fame and unfathomable level of excessive indulgences remain jaw dropping.

 

 

I'm with the band cover

 

While Jimmy Page was soloing with his violin bow, Pamela Des Barres was wrangling backstage passes for herself and a few friends.  In her tell all biography, I’m With the Band, she shares her tales of an unbelievable life travelling amongst rock’s elite including : Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, Keith Moon, Chris Hillman, and Jim Morrison. It’s the kiss-and-tell story of one woman, rock and roll, and being an “Almost Famous” fly on the wall of some interesting hotel rooms.

 

This is only a start.  For more check out this list or ask me for recommendations!

Pages